Winter Bird Food: The Recently Discovered

As you watch birds you continue to find new and interesting behavioral traits.  Some of these traits you can read about in books but other, little nuances you must observe.  I’ve watched bird for several years and am still finding out new things about my local, backyard birds every day.  One aspect of newly discovered bird behavior is their non-feeder feeding habits.  I am discovering all sorts of previously unknown resources used by birds.  That is the main reason that I started this series.  In this second installment I am going to focus on a very familiar and important tree.  Not only is this tree a huge favorite ornamentally but is also nutritionally relevant and can lure in irruptive species.

The Dogwoods, genus Cornus, are commonly planted as a decorative trees in many yards.  In Arkansas, they are equally common, if not more, in a natural setting.  The two common species in central AR are Flowering Dogwood (C. florida) and Roughleaf Dogwood (C. drummondii).  Here we will focus on the Flowering Dogwood.  It has white “blooms” (not a traditional bloom as the petals are diminutive and aren’t the white leaves that you see) in the early spring and forms red fruit in the late summer to fall.  These fruit are a striking red which suggests an advertisement scheme by the plant.  However, I have never witnessed a bird eating this fruit until this season.

Flowering Dogwood berries

Flowering Dogwood berries

In birding terms, “irruptive” suggests a species that makes irregular migrations from year to year.  A lot of our finches (Fringillidae) are considered irruptive.  Other irruptive species include Red-breasted Nuthatches and Blue Jays.  They breed in conifer forests of northern U.S. and Canada.  They feed on cone seeds and larvae of coniferous pests like spruce budworms.  The prevalence of these seeds and larvae varies from year to year.  If it is a good year for the cone crops than the irruptive birds will stay at home for the winter but if it is a bad year than they will wander farther south.  Here in central AR we know when its an irruptive year when we have 30+ Siskins at the feeders.  One of these birds that is considered an irruptive species but we get at least one at the feeders each winter is the Purple Finch.  This year is supposed to be a slightly irruptive year and already we have had several Purple Finches in the yard.  One of the first place I saw these finches congregate was in one of our Dogwoods.  Since seeing them eating the dogwood berries I have heard of several reports from others of similar instances.  I have since seen Robins, Waxwings, and Hermit Thrush hanging around the trees.

Nutritionally, the berries are rich in carbohydrates.  The berries are a good source for Vitamin C.  Some species of Dogwoods can be eaten by humans and have many medicinal applications.  However, some species may be poisonous.  This tree can be a good source of cover for birds and makes a nice perch for our hawking birds (phoebes and bluebirds mostly) as they don’t grow very tall.  Comparatively, these trees aren’t very long lived and we have several dead (I assume from old age) trees around the yard.  The standing, yet dead, tree hosts several insects which can be taken by woodpeckers and others.


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